How To Have Difficult Conversations: The 5 Stages Of A Successful Discussion

The ability to conduct and find positive resolutions by having difficult conversations is a life skill that everyone should develop.

Many situations can only be resolved by one’s willingness to engage in difficult conversations, whether at work or in your personal relationships.

Asking for a change or resolving a problem can cause heated emotions if the conversation is not handled well.

The person may take offense or feel like they are being unfairly criticized, which will cause them to react defensively.

That defensiveness is a major barrier to finding a solution or bringing a person around to your point of view. People generally stop listening when they start getting angry or defensive.

The process of having a difficult conversation doesn’t need to be complicated. The foundation for the conversation will actually start before you start speaking.

Planning The Conversation

A difficult conversation should not be a heat of the moment discussion when tensions or emotions are running high.

The less emotional you can be when approaching the conversation, the better results you’re likely to get because you’ll be communicating with a clear mind.

It’s much easier to empathize, find common ground, and find the right words when your emotions are cool.

Take some time to plan out the conversation, what you need to say, and how you will say it.

The way you deliver a message is just as important as what that message actually is. Presentation affects the way an audience perceives and receives a message.

Answering the following questions clearly will help you plan out your conversation.

What is the problem that needs to be discussed?

Clearly spell out the problem in a simple, concise way so that you can see what the issue is.

If there are multiple issues contributing to an overall problem, have each of these clear in your mind.

What factors are influencing the problem?

It’s not always a person’s fault that a problem arose. Sometimes there are external factors that may be influencing or causing a problem.

Consider if there are any external factors that may be affecting the situation.

What resolution do you want to attain?

Decide what a successful resolution of the problem will look like, what you can accept, and where you can compromise if it becomes necessary.

Knowing this will help you guide the conversation in a way that gives you the greatest chance of reaching this resolution.

Approaching The Person

Approaching the person you need to talk to can be as simple as, “Hey, I need to discuss X problem with you. When would be a good time for us to speak about it?”

This simple, direct approach says what needs to be said while also giving the other person an opportunity to find their footing.

By asking when would be a good time for them, you’re giving them an opportunity to be an active participant rather than having the conversation forced on them unexpectedly.

Not every situation will be that smooth and clear cut. It assumes that the person who you are talking to is receptive and amenable to the conversation.

If they are not, then that suggestion isn’t likely to work out well.

They may use it as an opportunity to decline or postpone the conversation, which will tell you that they may not care about finding a solution and a different approach may be required.

Once you have a time set, then you can actually have the conversation.

You may also like (article continues below):

Having The Conversation

The way you deliver a message is so very important.

You want the other person to be receptive to what you have to say so that you can find a solution to the problem.

The message that you’re delivering needs to be clear so that the listener does not get confused.

How do you do that?

Skip the pleasantries and get right to the point.

Assuming you approached the person beforehand, they know you’re going to be having a difficult conversation and will have mentally prepared for it.

Be direct, get right to the point. There’s no reason to fluff out the conversation with unnecessary filler like fake pleasantries and “compliment sandwiches.”

Control your emotions and remain calm while you talk.

A flood of emotions out of you is likely to evoke a flood of emotions from the listener. Anger will usually incite anger from the listener, for example.

Pay attention to your tone, the words you are using, and the emotions that are coming forward in your communication.

If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed or too emotional, pause for a few seconds and collect your thoughts.

Emotion isn’t always a bad thing in difficult conversations, but it’s usually more harmful than helpful.

Clarify your problems by using direct examples.

The easiest way for you to communicate the problem is by using direct, clear examples of what is going wrong.

This helps the listener to understand how they might be responsible for a problem and how they might change their behavior to resolve it.

Avoid accusations, finger pointing, blaming, and absolute language.

This may be harder to avoid than one might realize, particularly if you are trying to resolve a personal issue where there is actually someone to blame for something going wrong.

If you can avoid these things, you’ll be more likely to get to a successful resolution of the problem.

Definitely avoid absolute language like “nothing,” “everything, “you never,” and “you always.”

These types of words erode the quality of the conversation because they do not reflect reality. No one always does anything.

Give the other person an opportunity to speak their mind and ask questions.

The ability to listen is imperative. If you’re looking to find the solution to a problem, there may be other factors at work that you had not considered or been privy to.

A conversation is an exchange between people. Don’t forget to listen to what the other person has to say, address their concerns, and consider their point of view.

They may already have a solution or plans that you’re not aware of. Make sure you understand the other person’s response.

Do give them the freedom to ask questions so they can clearly understand your point of view.

This also helps the other person feel as though they are part of the problem-solving process rather than feeling like a resolution is being forced on them.

Don’t deviate from the topic at hand.

Avoid getting pulled off of the problem you are discussing or wandering around into other issues.

That will usually devolve the discussion into a confusing fight as both parties lose sight of the primary goal and start getting sucked into a mindset of attack and defense.

Stay focused on the topic at hand.

Don’t be afraid to take a mutual break from a discussion.

Difficult conversations can evoke intense emotions. If you or the other person needs a small break, then take one.

Just make sure that you are both in agreement to take a break and come back to the matter. You don’t want either party using a break as a means of derailing or controlling the conversation by ending communication at a vital point.

Don’t make assumptions about the situation.

Try to keep a clear and open mind about the person you’re talking to and the situation you are trying to resolve.

This will help you save face and preserve your own image as a reasonable, problem-solving person if you end up being completely wrong about a situation.

That perspective is important because you don’t want to have a reputation as someone who is hard to find solutions with.

People are more likely to avoid you than try to work with you to find resolutions which will only cause you more problems in the future.

Resolving The Conversation

The close of the conversation should clearly articulate what is due to transpire after the conversation is had.

Are there particular goals that need to be met?

Actions that need to be taken?

Apologies to make?

Bridges to mend?

Do the people involved need to find a mutually beneficial resolution together? Or is it more the problem of one person that needs resolving?

By the end, all parties should have a clear idea on how they are going to progress to ensuring that the problem is solved and does not happen again.

However, the message may not be well-received, at which time you’ll know if you need to start making other plans or changes.

You can control how you deliver a message, but you can’t control how the listener is going to feel about or respond to it.

These guidelines should get you closer to an amicable resolution for the difficult conversations you will inevitably have in your life.

ATTENTION PLEASE: Our brand new YouTube channel is live. You'd be mad not to subscribe to it and click the bell icon to get notifications when new videos go live. What are you waiting for?

This page contains affiliate links. I receive a commission if you choose to purchase anything after clicking on them.